It will not be an exaggeration to say that for a cricket fan in the 1990’s, the word ‘fielding’ was synonymous to ‘Jonty’. In fact, for this generation, the existence of fielding in cricket can be classified in two eras – before and after Jonty. He took the arduous task of fetching the ball after it hit the bat, and made it exhilarating. Kids playing in the gullies no more wanted to go home immediately after their turn to bat was over.
More than a decade since his retirement, Jonty is still enriching cricket’s fielding department, as a coach. With the Mumbai Indians since IPL 2009, the former Proteas shared his invaluable insights on fielding and coaching in a chat with iplt20.com.
The fielding standard has gone really high in the last few years. Does that make a fielding coach’s job tougher or easier?
I think it’s actually a bit of both. In these times the players cannot hide in the field and so you need all your players to be good fielders. The expectation of the captain becomes high and hence a fielding coach’s job becomes more challenging. On the other hand, you also have guys with great abilities who are prepared to dive round and throw themselves to the ball, which wasn’t the case in the past. It makes all the matches and all the fielding sessions more exciting.
There are so many minute technicalities involved when batting and bowling coaches have those intense sessions with players. Are one-on-one fielding coaching sessions as technical?
For me, everything about your fielding starts with the feet. People talk about good hands and hand-eye coordination but If you are in a bad position to take a catch, it’s your feet that will get you to the right place. So, when I have a one-on-one session with a player, I observe his body position and feet movement and make technical enhancements there.
Another important technical aspect is throwing the ball. There are big, strong guys with great upper body strength who can throw the ball but in weak positions. So, what I do is try to maximize their strength. In that regards, I have spoken a lot with Mike Young, the baseball coach who also coached Australia in the past. After speaking to him I realized how little we know about throwing. So, I’ve tried to catch some technicalities from him and use that knowledge with the players I work with. I for instance, had a faulty throwing technique and that’s why I used to throw myself at the stumps because I wasn’t very confident of getting a direct hit. I wish I had a fielding coach to help me improve that aspect.
How does the experience of fielding differ with each format?
When I played, I expected every ball to come to me, in ODIs as well as in Tests. The difference in Tests is that you have to learn how to switch on and switch off. You’ll be exhausted after 15-20 overs if you concentrate every single minute. So, the moment the ball is over, I either spoke to the umpire, waved at the crowd or did something or the other to relax myself. Fielding in the T20 format has its own challenges. You can get distracted easily with so much happening around you. You have to constantly look at the captain because it would be impossible to hear him in all that noise. Yes, there are differences but the basic remains the same. Your feet move in the same way and you must expect the ball to come to you each time, irrespective of the format.
Which format would you find most challenging to coach a fielder for?
Oh, Test cricket! No doubt about it. Sometimes, the whole team has to sit in the dressing room for two days as your batsmen go on and on. At other times, it gets tiring spending hours in the field and the energy levels dip. In the T20 format, I can pep the boys up by telling them, ‘Come on! It’s only 120 balls’ but motivating them to field for five hours straight can be difficult. However, having said that, I imagine my basic preparation for the team would remain the same. I start preparing the team for fielding two-three days prior to the match. That’s all I can do, at the end of the day. I get out of the picture once they take field.
Is it preferable to train every player to field at all positions or is it wiser to create specialists, given every position requires special skillset?
Definitely, creating specialists. You have to identify a player’s skills and give them fielding positions accordingly. For instance, we have Pollard fielding in the circle for the first six overs and then the bulk of his work is on the boundary. He can run from long-on to long-off and take a stunning catch. You cannot expect the same from a Zaheer Khan, for instance. It is always advisable to have specialists at each position but, however, every player must be trained to be a complete fielder.
With certain players do you also have to work towards their mental makeup in order to take the fear of being hit out of them? Can you recall any such case you handled?
If you are trying to hide in the field, you will find that the ball will invariably find you. For instance, when I first joined Mumbai Indians, Munaf Patel was in our squad. There were people who said to me, ‘Well, good luck on that’ because he was considered to be one of the worst fielders in India. One of first things I told him was, ‘Listen, Munaf, I have only one rule for you. Do not let your foot touch the boundary rope. If you don’t want to dive, don’t dive. But do not expect to hide in the field because that way you will ensure that the ball comes to you’. It took a bit of time but then he realized that he had to be prepared for every ball to come to him. Eventually, he ended up a much improved fielder. I never expected him to be a Pollard, I just wanted him to be the best Munaf Patel he could be. In the 2012 season he did pretty well in the field. Every time the ball would go up and we saw Munaf under it, we all were like ‘Oh, there’s another drop!’ When we looked up, he’d have gobbled it up. The more catches he took, the more confident he became. Like it does in batting and bowling, confidence plays a big part in fielding. For instance, Yuvraj Singh is one of India’s greatest fielders but during the recent World Twenty20, he struggled to take his catches. That’s because he was out of form with the bat and hence low on confidence.
How do you pick fielders to stand at positions like forward short leg or silly point? What are the attributes a coach should look for?
First of all, they have to be very brave and they should want to be there. I don’t understand the norm of making the newest guy in the team stand in close-in positions. You always have to have your best guy there. I, for instance, always wanted to be at close-in positions because that’s where the action lies. I loved being at the centre of the game and be involved all the time. There’s no point making a new kid stand there just because he supposedly has to earn his right to be in the side. It’s crap and you can quote me. It is crap.
I remember speaking to you in 2011 and you told me that the Indians don’t like to dive. Has that opinion changed?
Oh, yes, it has. You see the current Indian team and it is full of brilliant fielders, not afraid to dive around. The Sri Lankans have always been agile fielders but in recent years the Indians and Pakistanis have taken their standard of fielding to a new level. I did a bit of commentary during the recent Under 19 World Cup and I was amazed to see the standard of fielding. Good fielding is no more just the monopoly of countries like Australia or South Africa. It has become an integral part of most cricket teams. Also in IPL, if you see some of the greatest catches taken, it will not feature only the international players. A number of young Indian domestic players have pulled off stunners, and that, excites me.
We see these days many young Indian fielders are adopting the Australian technique of catching with fingers up. Would you say that is the result of the IPL?
Possibly. Virat, for instance, catches the ball with reversed cup (finger pointing skywards). Now, he has been exposed to international cricketers from a young age and that it is possible he has picked that technique up. I personally feel that technique helps you get under the ball well and move your feet more briskly. However, there is no one way – Ravindra Jadeja is a brilliant fielder and he catches the ball with straight cupped hands.
Is it possible and advisable to be flexible in your catching technique depending on the height of the ball and your own body position?
Of course it is. Only a couple of days back, during a fielding session with MI, I asked the Indian boys to practise the reverse cup technique for taking high catches and see if it makes a difference in their feet movement and overall posture. They said it did and liked it too. But after a few catches, they forgot and caught one with their traditional technique. It is hard to change something you’ve learned from childhood. But you have to be flexible. For instance, an Australian who is used to catching with reversed cups, sometimes has to catch with fingers pointed down when he’s taking a low catch. Jacques Kallis and Graeme Smith stood side by side in the slips. Kallis used the reversed cup and Smith caught with straight cup. So, it is a very individual thing as well.
As the fielding coach, how closely and to what degree do you work with the wicketkeeper in the squad?
I have been fortunate to have had Pravin Amre by my side at MI. He has been of a real value for me in terms of learning the nitty gritty and requirements of wicketkeepers in the Indian conditions. During my playing days I watched Mark Boucher closely and in IPL I have worked with Dinesh Karthik. With the keepers, one thing remains constant – the feet movement. However, I don’t try to coach a keeper because I am not a keeper myself. I just try to observe their movements and give my input if I see that something can be improved there. Other times, I just listen to them and give my opinion on things they have a doubt about.